When I was first learning about Marx and Marxism dialectics appeared to me as reified, impenetrable things, a matter far from helped by Lenin's injunction (in private notes) that you needed to read and understand Hegel's Science of Logic if you were to ever get a handle on Capital. But I was determined to get my head round them because its proponents held out the promise of their being master keys that could unlock the secrets of social phenomena (and nature, if you followed crude and uncritical celebrations of Engels' Dialectics of Nature). Undaunted, I vowed to make use of a protracted period of unemployment by burrowing into Marx and the mountain of commentary grown up around him. As you would expect most of the stuff I read at that time was opaque. I gave up on CLR James's Notes on Dialectics - a reading that took Lenin's dictum seriously and ploughed straight into Hegel. I had a tough time with Maurice Cornforth's Materialism and the Dialectical Method and the four-volume Issues in Marxist Philosophy, but I got a handle on the core precepts of the dialectical method eventually. After much obfuscation and outright bullshit, it basically boils down to the observation that social relations are interconnected, conflict with one another, and are forever in a process of change.
What's brought this trip down memory lane on? I've recently been toying with the idea of revisiting Capital and actually finish it this time round. Third time lucky, perhaps. The passage below stood out as some of the most beguiling Marx ever wrote, not least because he avoided writing a treatise on his dialectics. So what is his basic position?
For Hegel, the process of thinking ... is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of 'the idea'. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought ... The mystification the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head, It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction: because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion and therefore it grasps its transient aspect as well; because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its essence critical and revolutionary. (1968, pp102-3)A quick note on terminology. 'The dialectic' or 'dialectics' implies something otherworldly, or a mystifying plurality that denotes nothing but itself. In Marx's hands it/they are neither of these. It is simply a name denoting the simultaneity of interconnectedness, conflict and change.
What does turning Hegel the right way up entail, and what's so frightful about it? As Marx notes, for Hegel the world as it was and will be is the reflection of 'the idea', or reason, or the 'absolute' unfolding and coming into being through the history of our species. Each epoch in history, from antiquity to the moment Hegel was writing constituted a moment in the progress of the idea becoming conscious of itself. But, and this point is often overlooked, this was not a linear process. History unconsciously, semi-consciously, and then fully consciously gropes toward reason through dialectical processes. History - with a capital H - approaches reason through innumerable contradictions that are resolved, but also seed subsequent History with the elements of new conflicts. Over time, the scope of these contradictions narrow to the point where the End of History is reached and human history, as we understand it, stops and we live in a new age governed by reason. As far as Hegel was concerned, as he grew more crotchety and conservative with age he came to identify the Prussian state with the idea - a misrecognition only surpassed by Francis Fukuyama's pronouncement that the End of History had come with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But nonetheless, for Marx Hegel's great achievement was that he had, in the abstract through his dialectics captured the 'shape' and the 'movement' of social processes in a particular kind of society and a certain historical conjuncture. Behind the foreboding language of the passage of quantity into quality, interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation lay a dynamic appreciation of how social relations are constituted, develop and dissipate.
Whereas in Hegel it was the idea that drove dialectics, putting him the right way up demonstrates it was actually dialectics that drove the development - or allowed for the very possibility - of the idea. In Hegel's hands, dialectical philosophy justified the status quo with its appeal to revealed reason. But in Marx's hands it became a weapon for the deepest, most thoroughgoing understanding and critique of human societies. For Marx, who had no time for deities or phantoms (except as handy metaphors), all of human history and prehistory was a material process of dialectical interaction with the natural world. All of our achievements and continued viability as a species rests on the productive relationship with have with the world around us. With the concomitant development of agriculture and civilisation, history (with a small h) effectively began when early societies were consistently able to produce a surplus over and above the needs of those communities. Struggles over the disposal of that surplus sedimented into different classes. Who controlled a society's material resources have, since about 5,000 years ago, been a question of class. Since then different kinds of class societies have come and gone, the playing out of class antagonisms and contradictions largely conditioning the shape of the kind of society that came after. For instance, as the feudal relationships between lord and serf decayed in mediaeval England the contradictions arising from the contradictions between them, the nascent merchant classes in the towns, and large numbers of landless labourers saw traditional relationships in the countryside displaced by a mercantile one whereby labour power was given in exchange for a wage, and produce was grown and sold primarily for profit. As the profit motive and the drive to accumulate in competition against others spread and subsumed all productive activity, so the material impulse to innovate - which seldom existed outside of warfare - entered into economics and gave us capitalism, the first truly dynamic social system.
Therefore all of human history for Marx is merely a succession of material struggles, and ideas - such as those of Hegels - are more or less abstract representations of contending clashes of interests. Hence the term materialist dialectics or (if you must) dialectical materialism. Their abominable quality, as Marx noted, lies in the simple observation that nothing is eternal. The rule of the most benign forms of capital rests on the exploitation of one class by another, and sooner or later the class contradictions contained within capitalist social formations shall resolve themselves. They can do so positively in the emergence of a new society in which the economic exploitation of one human being by another is consigned to history, or negatively in some other, so far unanticipated system of class rule with its own set of dynamics, contradictions and possibilities.
The point is that dialectics are utterly straightforward to the point of banality, and indeed would be if they did not have serious political implications for whatever happens to be the ruling state of affairs.
NB This old post on the place of abstraction in Marx's dialectical method might prove interesting to some.